Beats of the East

Ahead of a first-versus-first series between eastern-division powers, we take a look at Boston’s Mookie Betts and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, two ballplayers who have been consistent like clockwork for their contending teams.

At Yankee Stadium a few weeks back, I saw a ball get over Mookie Betts’ head that wasn’t a home run. In a game that featured an eighth-inning rally, two mammoths in pinstripes, triple digits on the radar gun, and perhaps the loudest May crowd I’ve ever heard in person, the ball that landed on the warning track behind Betts felt like the most improbable thing of all.

Betts also struck out, and that I remembered those two things happening in the same game made me feel like I had fallen prey to a case of Mandela Effect. Betts has entered that stratified air of excellence where failures carry an unreasonable magnitude—it’s easy to forget that he still got on base twice and remained captivating patrolling center. The great things he does are fast becoming de rigueur.

Betts has been so spectacular for the first place Boston Red Sox that he’s grabbed the talismanic status that accompanies the cream of the crop. He’s developed into a worthy successor to Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. He’s become Boston’s beat. Betts always had the tools to be what makes his franchise tick. He’s very much like…well, like Freddie Freeman.

This weekend, the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves travel to New England to take on the AL East-leading Red Sox. Two of the best teams through baseball’s first quarter will face off in an interleague series that would otherwise have little intrigue outside of Boston Braves references. Both sides have ridden superb offenses to sizzling starts—Atlanta leads the NL in runs scored, while Boston is second in all of MLB. At the centers of two of the most productive lineups in baseball are Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

The Ringer’s Zach Kram recently wrote a comprehensive analysis on Betts and his great start, accompanied by a splendid title which suggests that in a league without Mike Trout, Betts would be baseball’s best. Even adjusting for hyperbole, Kram is not wrong. Betts is all over baseball’s leaderboards: he’s second in bWAR and offensive bWAR, behind the generational Trout; he leads the league in average, slugging, and OPS; he’s tops in doubles and home runs and second in hits behind Atlanta’s contact savant Nick Markakis; and he’s comfortably atop the win probability added (WPA) chart. He’s been good defensively, but his best season yet is propped up by MVP-caliber offensive consistency. He’s hit safely in 34 games and has reached base in 42 of 46 games played. Even the improbable things he’s done have happened more than once: Betts has three multi-home run games and two three-home-run games. He’s one of only four players with three or more multi-homer games this season, and one of just nine players in the last 20 years with multiple three home run games in the same season (this is the second time he’s done that, too).

Look at Boston’s 34-16 start from any angle and Betts has his prints all over it.

Boston is good; they were expected to be. The Atlanta Braves, however, are well ahead of schedule. An infusion of exciting, young, proficient talent has them sitting atop an NL East with four teams over .500. But the mainstays are guiding Atlanta’s early rise. And Freddie Freeman is at the helm.

Before fracturing his wrist last season, Freeman was one of best players in the league, batting .341/.461/1.209 (AVG/SLG/OPS) through 37 games while averaging a stellar .88 walks per strikeout. Healthy, Freeman is again one of the top hitters in the league. He’s in the top-10 of on-base percentage, hits, walks and total bases. He’s been on base the second-most times in the majors and is ninth in weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

Freeman’s been more disciplined at the plate, paving the way for another fantastic season. He’s swinging at fewer pitches in general, and 5% fewer pitches outside the strike zone compared to his career average. Meanwhile, his contact percentage has jumped up to just over 81%, about five percentage points better than his career rate. Freeman is controlling at-bats better than he ever has and making exceptional contact in the process. Per Baseball Savant, he’s in the top-20 in hard-hit balls and hard-hit percentage, and he’s squaring up baseballs with the best of them. He remains one of the most efficient players in the game. The bumper crop of young studs filling Atlanta’s potent lineup has undoubtedly helped Freeman get off to a strong start: Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna account for 46% of his runs driven in. But part of the magic of Freeman’s major league career is how regularly he performs no matter what changes around him. With new toys ahead of him, he keeps the line moving and the wins coming for the Braves, consistently productive as ever. He and Markakis are tied for the team lead in bWAR, with Freeman pacing Atlanta in WPA and wRC+.

Baseball doesn’t feature regular individual matchups between position players, but it is conducive to standout individual play. This weekend, Freeman will see Betts at first a few times, and Betts will chase a few Freeman-hit liners. In the brief moments that they interact, be it through base or ball, they’ll come across the critical component in each successful team’s machine.

I haven’t seen Freddie Freeman in a couple of seasons, but I can remember just about every time I’ve seen him live. Like the legendary Greg Maddux before him, Freeman is the rare ballplayer that seems to bend the game to his cadence. He plays at his pace, and the rest of the game moves at his measure. He’s like a finely-tuned watch; as he turns, so too does Atlanta. They’ve added a few shiny new jewels, but Freeman remains the spring, the gears and the balance wheel in the Atlanta timepiece.

Freeman is as consistent a beat as ever, and he remains his franchise’s rhythmic tick. He’s very much like…well, like Mookie Betts.

All Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant, and are current as of May 24th, 2018. 

Khurram “Mitch” Kalim is the Senior Writer for Bronx to Bushville. Vote Haniger for the 2018 ASG.

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